Thursday, May 24, 2018

History of My Reading: Portrait of a Reader As An NCB

In my previous posts on childhood and adolescent reading, I was guided by musings on the books as artifacts and how I came to read them--childhood books at home, then from the public library, then my own paperback purchases.  But I neglected (or forgot) some other books that were important to me, that can also be viewed in light of a few personal characteristics and circumstances.

For example, I might have given the impression of being a particularly serious reader, perhaps a prodigy.  I wasn't.   I may have read often, but I had far too much energy to stick with reading for very long at a time.  I was an active, "free-range" kid.  I had bouts of childhood illnesses to thank for some of those reading experiences--even beyond comic books.

I had particular trouble with long narratives.  The worst were in high school, when our English courses included Silas Marner by George Eliot and Great Expectations by Dickens.  Even though they were probably abridged versions, they were excruciating.  I especially didn't enjoy being forced to spend so much time with such an awful and scary person as Miss Havisham.  That drudgery put me off nineteenth century English novels for a very long time.

Especially in my public library reading before high school, I got through other books if the story was exciting, even if I didn't understand all the other stuff.  I read some awful stuff, too.  I had a paperback copy of Strive and Succeed by Horatio Alger.  I think this is when I was a hotshot paperboy and fancied myself a businessman (even if my profits went largely to snacks at the neighborhood stores along my route.)  I now have a paperback reprint of that exact edition, and it is truly a terribly written book.

Sometime before high school I enjoyed reading Tom Sawyer which encouraged me to go on to Huckleberry Finn.  That was a bit more difficult, though it was episodic enough to keep me going.  I may have tired a bit in the middle, until it got exciting again.

One author I recall reading, probably in high school, was William Saroyan.  I got his books out of the library: The Human Comedy, My Name is Aram (short stories), probably one or two more.  I may have seen on television the James Cagney movie adapted from his play, The Time of Our Lives.  I really liked Saroyan, his small town stories about growing up, learning tolerance and integrity. I did not have the same kind of experiences but I could imagine them, and some of his characters were like some of the older people I encountered.

Saroyan was a popular and prize-winning author from the 30s to the 50s, but has largely been forgotten.  He was never mentioned in any of my lit courses at college.  Probably judged as too sentimental.  Even Steinbeck (who I also read at this time, though sporadically) was a bit suspect.

As was Sinclair Lewis, for stylistic reasons I suppose. I read Main Street or Babbitt on my own in high school, after I tried to read Kingsblood Royal, which was about racial prejudice.  It was one of his more obscure novels, which I read because a girl I had a crush on said she liked it.  I was excited by the satiric edge--satire was big in the early 60s-- and the ideas, but I didn't follow the story lines of these novels completely.

So by the end of high school, the recognized literary works I read (as opposed to tried to read but failed) were mostly short stories, short novels, or episodic novels, as described in my post on paperbacks: Updike, J.D. Salinger, etc.  These were in addition to other shorter works, especially classic poems and essays.  The essays intrigued me as a form but I found most of them long-winded. They should see me now!

I read the classic poems and essays mostly as school assignments, but once I discovered a college anthology of English literature that had belonged to my uncle Carl Severini, I read poems and essays in that volume.  In high school I found solace there when President Kennedy was assassinated, in two poems by Shelley: the long poem "Adonais" he wrote on the death of Keats, and a short poem, "Mutability."

In trying to remember which classic adventure stories I actually read when young, as distinguished from encountering as movies or comic books, I only recently recalled The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.  Once I remembered it, the experience of reading it came back to me.  I read an old hardback from the library, which added to the thrill.

That book had a feature that leads me to my second point about my pre-college reading: I was the model of an NCB (Nice Catholic Boy.)  I went to Catholic schools for 12 years.  By high school I was starting to see the Church a bit more objectively, and eventually I was troubled by hypocrisies and lame rationalizations for activities like the Inquisition.  I remember being both uneasy and thrilled that the villains of The Three Musketeers were the Catholic Cardinal and his men.

In high school I read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter in paperback, with just enough comprehension to get the basic story and mood.  The idea of being ostracized for dissenting behavior, being literally marked for going against the dominant beliefs of the community, was haunting, given the doubts I was starting to have.

Many of the questions I had in high school questions came from actual Church history, and from applying principles we were learning in, say, Problems of Democracy class, to what we were analyzing in Religion.  But there was one extraordinary reading experience, one literary novel, that became formative for me in a number of ways.  How I got my hands on it was perhaps the most extraordinary element.

My sophomore year of high school I joined the Speech Club and began going to tournaments at other schools, giving extemporaneous speeches ("Extemp.")  My junior and senior year I participated in Debate.  My partner Mike and I won district championships our senior year in both the National Forensic League and Catholic Forensic League competitions.

The speech club advisor was Sister Ronald.  Almost all of our teachers were nuns, of various denominations.  I believe she was a Sister of Mercy, which (along with the Sisters of Charity who taught me in grade school) were begun and/or headquartered in our local region.

I had a complex relationship with another of the Sisters of Mercy, who at first championed me--made me editor of the high school newspaper as a freshman (not quite as radical as it seems--we were a new high school with only two classes at the time, first and second years) and promoted me into the first bunch of the National Honor Society inductees.  Later she fired me from the newspaper and tried to get me thrown off the NHS, after lecturing me about my lack of humility.  She also seemed particularly bothered by observing that I talked to too many girls.

Her fixation on me even became a source of embarrassment for the school administration, as I learned when the principal asked me to "forgive and forget."  I answered with a quote from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, whose biography I had recently read for some unknown reason.  "I can forgive, but if you ask me to forget, you ask me to give up experience."

Anyway, Sister Ronald must have known about this situation, and my ongoing emotional turmoil.  She was a bit of a mercurial character as well.  One day out of the blue she slipped me an old, hardbound copy of a book.  She suggested I read it and return it to her, with the clear implication that I should not tell anyone else about it.

The book was A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce.  I knew pretty quickly why it had to be kept secret.

Our Catholic high school strictly controlled what we read.  Our textbooks, even the literature collections, all displayed the nihil obstat and imprimatur indicating the contents were free from doctrinal and moral error.  James Joyce, while not on the official Church Index of forbidden books, was not exactly approved either.

Joyce's novel Ulysses had been notorious, even banned in the United States until a landmark court case.  His collection of short stories, Dubliners, was mostly considered acceptable--one of the stories may even have been in our paperback collection of modern authors.  A Portrait of the Artist was somewhere in between, but it soon became clear to me why we weren't encouraged to read it.

The novel follows the childhood and adolescence of Stephen Dedalus in and around Dublin in the very late 19th century.  The early set piece scene of a Christmas dinner exposes the tensions among Stephen's elders regarding the Church's treatment of a hero of Irish independence.  Stephen goes to a Jesuit school, where he is bullied by students and clergy, but also supported by other students and clergy.

from the 1977 film of A Portrait
At 16, Stephen becomes obsessed with sex and on one of his long feverish walks finds himself in Dublin's red light district.  He returns to prostitutes often.  Then his school holds a retreat: several days during which ordinary school work is suspended and students are expected to concentrate on spiritual contemplation when not attending lectures by a priest brought in especially for the retreat.

This priest gives several sermons--fulsomely reproduced--describing the physical and mental torments of hell in great detail.  Stephen subsequently repents and becomes a saintly figure.  But when he is invited to consider whether he has a vocation for the priesthood, Stephen just as suddenly recoils against it.  By the last few chapters, he has rejected the Church and is preparing to leave Ireland, for a life of "silence, exile, cunning" to artistically "forge within the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Anti-clerical diatribes, sex with prostitutes (though at best I only vaguely understood this section), rejection of the Church--no mystery as to why this book wasn't approved, or was treated like it didn't exist.  Why did Sister Ronald give it to me?  I'll never really know.  I remember that I just as secretly returned it to her.

The Viking Library annotated edition of Portrait notes that the sermons on hell were very similar to those the Jesuits gave from the 16th through the 19th centuries.  Well, it didn't end there.  Sometime after I'd read this book, in my junior year of high school, we had the first of our retreats--and the priest engaged to give the lectures devoted one of them to an exact echo of these graphic descriptions of hell.

I had my spells of being especially devout--I was an altar boy for several years--but I don't recall being particularly moved by this lecture.  Perhaps I'd been immunized.  But while the hell sermons stood out--I recall reading them at night in bed, my cold arms holding the book outside the bed covers--the influence of the book was probably subliminal, suggesting that I wasn't alone in questioning the immediate world pressing around me.

A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man was the only book I read in high school that I subsequently read again for a class in college.  It had more of a direct impact that time, the fall term of my junior year in a course on modern novels with Howard Wilson.  James Joyce became a literary hero and model in the years immediately following.  As for "silence, exile, cunning," I never got the silence quite right--I was a loudmouth, though I yearned for silence around me.  I was soon to learn that when necessary, I could engage the cunning--with mixed success.

But exile I understood.  It was the future I saw for myself with increasing definition over those late 60s years.    

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Big Drops

I've noted here some items in the daily onslaught of the antipresident's reign that violate the norms of presidential behavior and human decency, as well as the law.  For example, the recent posts Going Too Far and Going Too Far Continued.  While some of the instances those posts cited continued to be scandalous for awhile longer, none have so far led to serious consequences.  So, so far, not too far.

And the onslaught continues.  Jonathan Chait notes one that has gone unnoticed: the relatively technical violation committed by Hillary Clinton that Republicans blew up into the phones scandal is being committed routinely by the antipresident to exactly nobody's notice.  And his use of insecure phones is much more dangerous, given his office.

But Chait also notes the general response to the now routine outrages:

"There is no chance that Trump’s parallel sloppiness could play remotely as large a role in shaping public perception. There would be no reason for it. Trump has done so many consequential things, both in terms of his policy agenda and in his degradation of governing norms, that a myopic focus on his unsecured phone would serve no public interest. It does not rank as one of the 100 worst things Trump has done so far.

That is to say, nobody wants to live in a world where Donald Trump is held to the same standard as Hillary Clinton. Nor can anybody imagine what such a world would look like. It already feels like we are numb from the sensory overload of endless sirens directing us to the latest unprecedented outrage. No human could generate the mental space to process Trump’s firehose stream of offenses calibrated at Clinton levels. The political system couldn’t function at such a standard. He would have been impeached his first week in office."

Others have noted the unendurable drip drip drip of demeaning disaster.  But while we look away to save ourselves, we may not be noticing the big drops. Right now, there are at least two ongoing (if we put aside the actual policy disasters that normally would be of immense importance.)

First, there is the relentless effort by the antipresident supported by congressional and R party minions to place the antipresident above the law.  Right now it's a race between the law's workings (mostly but not exclusively through the Mueller investigation) and the antipresident's efforts to make himself dictator in chief.  The law is long.  But the antipresident's fuse is short.  We're always a minute away from constitutional chaos.

Second, there is the threat to the integrity of our election system posed by a growing number of suspects, with the Russian government as one known perpetrator.  And because of the antipresident's hostility to the idea, not enough is being done to safeguard future elections.

The antipresident doesn't want to hear about the Russians because, for one thing, it might call into question the legitimacy of his own election.  With the release of his book on Tuesday, and his appearance on the Rachel Maddow show, former Director of National Intelligence and career intelligence officer James Clapper has uttered the words of the antipresident's nightmares: his assessment that the Russian interference campaign  " swung the election to a Trump win." 

I've maintained that the 2016 election results were due to a perfect storm of evil and negligence: Democratic voter apathy leading to lower turnout, the refusal of some voters (mostly male but some female) to vote for a woman for President, the FBI director's announcements on Hillary just before the election, strategic and tactical mistakes by the Clinton campaign, the saturation media coverage and inflation of illegally obtained emails, and a racial backlash from whites after 8 years of an African American President, among other factors.  Prominent on the list is the Russian interference on social media, the dimensions of which are still being learned, as is the nature and extent of its coordination and collusion with the antipresident's campaign.

But Clapper is likely right about this: the number of votes that changed the results was so small, and so coincidentally clustered in the same few states that happened to have been targeted by the Russians, that this interference by a foreign power alone was enough to change the results.  For Hillary Clinton got several million more votes than her opponent, who won the electoral votes of those key states by a total of about 80,000 votes.

Again, we have a long game going here to protect this essence of democracy: the vote.  Courts in PA have reversed Republican gerrymandering, and a ballot initiative in Ohio ordered their courts to do the same.  Meanwhile, other courts have upheld racially biased voter ID laws in other states.  So it's a battle.

We have elections in November.  The special elections and primaries held so far this year suggest that a Blue Wave is entirely possible.  But will it come?  That's largely up to voters who didn't vote last election.  They will need to vote in numbers that can withstand the effects of continuing Russian disinformation and disruption...  And if the Blue Wave comes, will it come in time? That alas is up to fate.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

History of My Reading: The Comic Book Era

Since I've posted recently on the 80th anniversary of Superman, who appeared first in a comic book, I'm going to continue the "history of my reading" series with this post about comic books.

Comic books influenced the art world most conspicuously in the 1950s with American Pop Art (although Gertrude Stein maintained that Picasso loved newspaper comic strips which she said influenced Cubism.) They became subjects of literary speculation if not yet actual acceptance as literary products in the 1960s when Marshall McLuhan started talking about them as emblematic of the new media.  The Batman TV show, with its interpolated "Bif!" and "Pow!" derived from comic book panels, reflected the comic book's sudden status as fashionably hip.

Later the countercultural Zap Comix became an integral part of the hippie scene.

The late 60s also saw the beginning of the Marvel characters that reinvigorated and revived comic books, especially Spider-Man, enthusiastically introduced to me in college by fellow Knox student Erica Overberger.  Since then, apart from becoming the source of major movie empires,  comic books have morphed into the literary form of the graphic novel.

But my major comic books period was earlier in the 1950s.  My first exposure was to the newspaper comic strips, which historically also preceded comic books.  These black and white comic strips of maybe five horizontal panels appeared on a page in the daily newspaper, accompanied by single panel vertical comics, and perhaps a crossword puzzle and the daily horoscopes.

The Sunday newspaper however had an entire section of perhaps 6 or 8 pages of full color comic strips with many more panels each.  In my childhood, I saw the local Greensburg paper (the evening Tribune, until it merged with the morning Review to become the Greensburg Tribune-Review) but it did not then print a Sunday edition.  Instead we got the Sunday Pittsburgh Press.  Despite the difference, many of the comic strips were the same, though there were more on Sundays.

Usually leading the page in both papers in my 1950s childhood was the very basic art and story of Nancy, with her friend Sluggo.
One of the most famous comic strip lines
often applied to other subjects but originally
to environmental destruction.
Then I regularly saw many of the well-known newspaper comic strips of the time, including Peanuts, Archie and Jughead, Blondie, Pogo, Terry and the Pirates, the Phantom (one of my favorites), Dondi, Prince Valiant (Sundays only), Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Joe Palooka, Gasoline Alley, Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, and the one panel Family Circus and Our Boarding House...Among the detectives, fighter jocks and soldiers of fortune there were Rex Morgan M.D. and intrepid reporters Brenda Starr and Scoop Mallory.

But there were others, particularly in our daily Tribune, that aren't as well known.

For example, I read Johnny Hazard for the jet airplane flying scenes.  Curly Kayoe was an obscure strip about a fighter. He once had an opponent called Phil O'Dendron who always wore a black t-shirt in the boxing ring to cover up some dread secret on his chest.  I kept waiting for it to be revealed, and felt cheated when the strip announced that the secret had been told to people who had written in, but the strip itself never said.  It remains a mystery in my life (though I can now pretty much figure out what it was.)

Historically, the first comic books were crude compilations of a particular newspaper comic strip.  Very soon they featured their own characters, and then their own stories for characters established in the newspaper strips.

Superman was a creature of the comic books, just four years after they began.  When it came to new current comics, Superman was not only my favorite but almost the only character I followed.

That's partly due to the way I consumed this comics.  New comic books were a dime, which was not nothing in the 1950s, when a loaf of bread was 20 cents and a quart of milk was a quarter (at least at the neighborhood stores where I was sent to buy them.)  Fortunately I had a way to read comic books for free.

My grandfather's tailor shop was approximately half of a long, narrow building on Depot Street in Youngwood, about six miles from my Greensburg home.  My grandparents lived on the same street a couple of blocks down from the shop, towards the train tracks (and the depot.)  The other half was a barber shop, owned and operated by Sam Gelfo, whose father came from the same town in Italy as my grandfather.  There was a cluster of families from Manoppello in Youngwood and Greensburg--enough that there was a Manoppello Club in Greensburg.

My grandfather's tailor shop was relatively dimly lit, especially in the back where he worked the steam press.  The barber shop however was very bright, with white walls and those black and white checked floors.  Three or four barber chairs facing a wall of mirrors, with many colorful bottles and other containers on the marble shelf.

In the window that looked out onto the street there were chairs and benches for waiting customers.  There were magazines--and comic books.  Lots of comic books.

So when I visited my grandfather's shop I usually managed to spend some time in the barber shop, invariably reading as many comic books as I could.  Since my time was limited, I stayed mostly with the Superman titles.  And there were a lot of them: Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman comics and separate comic books for Superboy, Supergirl, Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane, plus the World's Finest featuring Superman and Batman.

I read them in great gulps, in a frenzy of red capes and blue-black hair.  The barbers got interested in how many I could read in an hour and often asked for a running count.

An entirely different set of comic books would come my way when I got sick and had to stay home from school.  Colds and their variations, plus measles, mumps and chicken pox--it added up.  Sometimes I could read actual books but often--especially with colds--I was too drowsy to do any more than follow a comic book story.  I would ask my father to bring some comic books home.

My father worked for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and drove a Singer panel truck.  When he wasn't in the store, he was out on "calls" doing repairs and sales.  On his travels he might stop at the little stores that were everywhere then--they sold some grocery staples like bread and milk, soft drinks, candy and baked goods, cigarettes--a bit of everything.  Some sold comic books including the kind they weren't supposed to sell.

 When comic books didn't sell out, a store could get its money back on unsold copies.  The owner tore off the top part of the front cover off (with the title and issue date) and returned that to the distributor for cash or credit.  He was supposed to throw the rest of the comic book away.

But some didn't.  They kept the mutilated comic books and sold them for five cents each, or maybe three for a dime.  These were the comic books my father often found and bought.

They were sometimes titles and characters I'd never heard of.  And once, out on some country road somewhere, he unknowingly found comic books that were years old--perhaps decades.

There were multiple issues, for example, that featured the Little Wise Guys.  Sometimes three, sometimes four kids and their adventures.

There were comics about a baseball player called Swat Malone, and the various nefarious ways opposing teams would try to cheat and keep him from hitting home runs, which he always did anyway.

But the most amazing set were vintage issues of the original Captain Marvel.  Billy Batson, SHAZAM!  His sister, Mary Marvel. I was completely enthralled and wanted more.  But eventually I realized there were no more.  There hadn't been new Captain Marvels for years.  I'd even sent away for membership in the Captain Marvel club, but got a card back saying the club had been "discontinued."  Did that mean it might start up again?  I couldn't believe there would be no more Captain Marvel.

Part of Captain Marvel's specific appeal was that he was an ordinary pre-adolescent boy (Billy Batson) who could transform into this superhero by saying the magic word given to him by a wizard.  Better than Clark Kent and Superman any day!

The original Fawcett Publications Captain Marvel stopped publishing in 1953 but based on the drawing style some of the issues I saw may have been from the 1940s. I was drawn to the drawing and the specific colors and look of it. The character was later revived in different forms by several companies--for awhile the two biggies, DC and Marvel both had versions.  But none of them stand up to the original.

According to this video I ran into on YouTube,  in the early 1940s the original Captain Marvel was the most popular superhero, superseding Superman.  Because of that, Fawcett spun off related characters: first Captain Marvel, Jr. and then, notably, Mary Marvel, one of the first and most prominent female superheroes.  She was created by Fawcett writer Otto Binder. The Marvel Family, separately and together, were enormously popular.  So DC Comics sued them for copyright infringement of their Superman character.

The suit dragged on for more than a decade but before it was decided, Fawcett was drained and dropped all their comic books in 1953.  DC then hired former Fawcett writer Otto Binder to write stories for--who else?--Superman.  He wound up creating both a number of classic super-villains who challenged Superman, and a female counterpart in Supergirl.  Ironically, she was a perfect copy of his creation for Fawcett: Mary Marvel. (He'd been so proud of creating Mary Marvel that he named his own daughter after her.) Mary Marvel was also a model for Isis, the first female superhero to star in her own TV show, in 1975.

In the years I was reading new comics in the barber shop, the superhero comics were beginning to get convoluted and fanciful. But the old rationale was often still there: they fought for the weaker, for fairness and justice for all.

It didn't take long for me to want to do more than read the comics--I wanted to write and draw them, too.  We got magazines in school, some with cartoons accompanying stories, and one that was pretty much a comic book.  In the back of at least one issue I remember a little tutorial on drawing cartoon figures.  I used these instructions to draw my own strips.

My father was also a member of the county Democratic committee and before elections he would get what were then called "specimen ballots"--sample ballots with the approved candidates' boxes checked, to be given to prospective Democratic voters.  They were long pink sheets of paper, with blank backs. I would get the ballots left over from the ones he was supposed to distribute.  I grew my cartoon strips on the back.

One of my characters was based on Captain Marvel.  Another was a comic character called Flatso.  Along with my ongoing drawings of an imaginary map--changing the borders of the countries to reflect the outcome of wars-- I was absorbed in these comics for awhile, usually in bed just before sleep.  But I wasn't very good at it, so eventually I stopped.  Still, there was a certain magic about doing those strips that I recall fondly.

Eventually I began acquiring and reading other kinds of comic books.  I liked science fiction ones--not just space adventures but actual science fiction, usually anthologies of stories with separate characters.  Stories might hinge on ultraviolet and infrared light, or the acidity of certain plants.

But I also read war comics, suspense stories, and even horror comics, including the notorious one in which a husband, annoyed that all his wife did was eat chocolate from those Whitman sampler boxes, chopped her up and distributed her body parts in a similar sampler.  These led to stricter standards for comic books, many of which displayed the Comics Code of approval.  This is when my neighborhood friends and I passed comic books back and forth.  Some probably were inherited, like that horror comic.

Not to be neglected were the Classics Illustrated comic books.  I read my first Jules Verne and H.G. Wells stories this way.  Classics Illustrated offered a wide range of stories: from the Iliad, Treasure Island, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Moby Dick to several Shakespeare and Dickens' stories.

 I don't remember which ones I read, outside of From the Earth to the Moon, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.  I do remember I was limited by the higher price--15 cents--and the fact that they were not readily available either from my friends or at the barber shop.  But I remember those three vividly, as comic books, apart from the movies and the original stories.

Comic books were sort of midway between books and the animated cartoons I saw on TV and at the movies.  The drawings didn't move or talk but, like characters in books, they spoke in your head.  There was a visual vocabulary and language peculiar to comic books.  Mastering that was a skill that suggested that mastering the skills of reading print-only books was possible.  Comic books also could be collected, displayed, lent out and traded.  But they were over pretty quickly. They didn't have the sustained worlds you could live in for weeks that books had.

Eventually comic books in my life went the way of baseball cards and model airplanes--until that fit of Marvel mania in the late 60s and early 70s, with Spider-Man and the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk.  Apart from that, I never got deep into the world of comic book mythologies, comic book collecting and so on.  Still, they furnish these memories.

Postscript: Another direct offshoot of the comic book are books that illustrate academic or otherwise complex subjects.  Probably the most prominent practitioner of this has been Larry Gonick, who I worked with on the Boston Phoenix in the early 70s.  His books like The Cartoon Guide to Physics and similar treatments in science, history and economics look to me like Zap Comix colliding with Classics Illustrated.  His most recent is a collaboration with Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at ye olde Knox College, titled Hyper-Capitalism (New Press, 2018.)

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tom Wolfe

Tom Wolfe died on Monday at the age of 88.  In recent photos he looked his age but still dapper in his trademark white suit.

The white suit!   Here he is, author of The Right Stuff.  Of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Of a body of essays and articles unmatched in the 20th century. Who transformed writing and any understanding of culture in America.  So what did the obits and the stories all start with?  The white suit. That's what makes him memorable to 2018.  But exactly!

Readers of Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye used to wonder, what happened to Holden Caulfield after the end of the book?  What fate could possibly befall him?  But isn't it clear?  After suitable treatment and better nutrition, he got his PhD in American Studies at Yale, and became Tom Wolfe.

Nobody who wrote for publication after 1968, in journalism and possibly not in American fiction either, could escape the influence of Tom Wolfe.  Whether or not you buy the claims he and others made for something called New Journalism, he changed how we could write, and how we did write.

in the 60s
Nobody who observed anything within American culture could escape his influence either.  One of his signature pieces of the 1960s was about Marshall McLuhan, another cultural observer and prophet. They both brought attention to current phenomena that serious intellectuals and journalists ignored, disdained and just couldn't see.  Especially if said phenomena existed chiefly outside of Manhattan.

Though their methods and personalities were different, they were both oracular, given to deploying snappy cultural labels that stuck.  And maybe Wolfe recognized another similarity: they both wrote with an enthusiastic sense of discovery about the latest trends, which suggested that they approved of them.  But they were both deeply conservative in many ways, and at times horrified by the new.

I read Wolfe over his long career, and came to disagree fairly sharply with some of his theories and conclusions.  But he was always thoughtful, so even in the tangents I couldn't follow with him there were astute observations.  All this is still evident in this lecture from 2006, some 40 years after he achieved his first big successes.

This lecture provides insight as well into his formative sources.  That was something else about him--he didn't just partly absorb and forget (or "move on").  He remembered his touchstones, like Max Weber.  For all that he wrote about the new, he did not himself embrace the new and discard the old without reason.  Years after others had moved on from the old Royal Mounted Police calisthenics we did in high school, Tom Wolfe was still doing them.  Jumping jacks and stuff.

And though I'm not crazy about any of his novels, I applaud the fact that while many journalists promise to write novels, he actually did.

I envied his education and erudition.  I couldn't match it, especially in fashion and its history.  But apart from representing possible new choices in writing voice, he offered an example to emulate in, for example, how much he worked a story, his immersion, his "saturation" method.  When he reported on Las Vegas, he even spent time observing in the mental hospital.  Of course not many reporters or magazine writers got the budget to spend that much time on a story, not even then, and certainly not now.  But it also takes concentration and dedication.

As for the white suit he adopted as his uniform sometime in the 60s...They weren't always white.  He could tell you what shade of white, off-white, etc. they were however.  He wrote about choosing socks that pick up the color of his tie.  He was something of a dandy, but at least he made dressing well seem something that was also available to heterosexual men.

in 1987, around the time I met him
I met him in 1986 maybe, or late 1985, when he spoke either in Pittsburgh or more likely at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.  My book, The Malling of America had just been published and since it owed a debt to his writing, I brought a copy along to give to him.  The only opportunity was a public one, as he mingled with attendees after his lecture.  He was wearing a suit of cream color, or would he call it custard?

We chatted briefly.  He approved of my phrase "the mallcondo continuum" for the landscape of malls and condos spreading between cities in Canada, for instance, where he'd just narrated a TV film.  He said he might steal it.

I yielded to others asking for his attention but some students had overheard our conversation and were excited to learn that I was the author of The Malling of America.  They formed a circle around me to ask me questions, near where others were crowding around Wolfe.  It was the kind of status moment that he wrote about so often.

I expect that at the very least The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test will be read for generations (I took a peek at the first few pages of the latter and look forward to re-reading the rest of it), and at least a dozen of his shorter pieces will be studied by cultural anthropologists of the future, if any.  This is the minimum of his tangible legacy.  May he rest in peace--his work and his influence live on.

For interesting evaluations there's Louis Menand and Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker, Laura Miller at Slate, and a commentary before Tom Wolfe's Paris Review interview.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Swamp

from Politico

Present: A Quotation

"If women aren't at the table, they're on the menu."

Sara Innamorato
winner in a landslide for the Democratic nomination to the Pennsylvania State House in deep blue District 21.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Happy 40th, Superman (the Movie)

I was one of the first few hundred (or maybe few thousand) to see the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie, at a New York pre-premiere press screening in 1978.

 It was a very hot ticket. Mike Shain (mild-mannered reporter for a New York metropolitan newspaper) and I were on our way to the second screening when we ran into a then-famous movie director and his famous actress girlfriend coming back from the first. Our screening was so crowded that the only seat I could find was in the front row. You could say I was in that movie as well as into it.

Everybody there that day knew that a lot of money was spent on it.  Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both released just the year before, had raised the bar for visual effects epics.  John Williams had made his reputation as epic big screen movie score composer on those films--he did the score for this one.  Everyone wanted to see Marlon Brando, the Godfather himself, slumming as a highly paid space alien.  Nobody knew much of anything about this Christopher Reeve kid. And most of all, nobody knew how anyone could make a Superman movie in 1978 that wasn't ridiculous.

Still, what if he was back?...Not the paunchy George Reeves from the reruns, but the Superman of childhood wonder?  The tests of that would certainly involve the actor and the story, but most of all...could he fly?  For this was a time, boys and girls, before CGI, when most visual effects were still mechanical and not computerized, and when there were many true "special effects"--that is, physical effects done on set, on the day of shooting.

Nobody had yet seen a credible flying sequence on the big screen.  The movie, everyone knew, would rise or fall on whether Superman could fly.

So perhaps knowing this, the moviemakers made everybody wait almost an hour to find out.

Or maybe they didn't plan it that way. Though the three parts of the movie were reputedly in the original Mario Puzo story, there were so many writers eventually involved, so much turmoil between the producers and the director, so much that had to be accomplished in so short a time (and they were filming a lot of scenes for the second movie as well) that it could be one of those classic messes, like Casablanca, that almost unaccountably turns out to be more than the sum of its crazy parts.

director Donner at left
Or maybe it was director Richard Donner who made it all work.  That's certainly the tenor of the featurettes that accompany the boxed set of Reeve Superman movies.  Donner and the actual script writer (billed as Creative Consultant due to Writers Guild rules presumably) Tom Mankiewicz managed to imbue contemporary Metropolis with comedy but preserve Superman himself from ridicule, sarcasm or even irony.  (Though the mythos was good for a few laughs, as when Clark Kent can't find a phone booth where he can change into Superman.)

Violating all kinds of expectations, each of the three distinct sections of the film has its own style.  But the tone for each was just right, while the rhythm from one to the other built the film's energy.  Together they made it an epic.

First there was that dazzling title sequence, with the neon blue names zooming out (quite an effect in the front row.)  It became a much imitated style, making its way to TV commercials (as did the circling tracking shots of 2001 a decade before.)

The Krypton section that began the film was a bit shaky, but then this part of the origin story always is, despite the otherworldly appeal.  In each of the prior dramatizations, the outfits and haircuts of the advanced alien Kryptonians always looks ridiculous a few years later.

In this one, Marlon Brando spouts ornate nonsense in his best Claude Rains accent to the remarkably crypto-fascist Kryptonians in their glowing white outfits, and condemns villains who wouldn't show up again until the second movie.  Maybe the denial of a scientific prediction of the planet's peril by the supposedly advanced Krypton leadership makes a bit more sense now than it ever did before.  Still, the function of Krypton in the story is to die quickly: Krypton as crypt.

While the design is conceptually bold, the Krypton scenes didn't even look that good in 1978, when the movie was rushed into theaters to meet its holiday play dates.  Both the sequence itself and the look of it vastly improved in the year 2000 re-edit and re-mastering.

As the destruction of Krypton he predicted begins, Jor-El sends his infant son on a course to Earth, for mixed motives apparently: because he has a better chance of surviving there since he's from a society thousands of years ahead of Earth's, he'll have super powers and be indestructible.  But also because (as his recorded voice later tells his grown son in the Fortress of Solitude) the Earthlings "can be a great people, Kal-El.  They only lack the light to show them the way.  For this reason above all, I have sent them you, my only son."

So starts the tracking of the Christ story, which some of us saw in it and which Mankiewicz has since confirmed was deliberate.  In some ways it's intrinsic to Superman's function as a kind of savior with godlike powers.  It's there in Jerry Seigel's description, and it certainly suggested itself to me and my friends when the Superman television show was first popular, just as we were starting Catholic school.  I recall hushed discussions among us about whether Superman and God were the same.

After a few scenes of the only begotten son's journey through space (during which he's treated to Jor-El's educational recordings, part one) his capsule skids into a Kansas wheat field, where Ma and Pa Kent in their pickup see the crash, and the toddler (sans swaddling clothes), holding his arms out to them.

So a virgin birth of a being from the sky. And once the child lifts their truck above his head, they realize they must keep him, just to protect him and his innocence from those who would exploit his powers or treat him cruelly because of his difference.  So they accept their divine mission.

The Kansas section can be criticized for the abundance of perfect Andrew Wyeth/Winslow Homer imagery--the fields, sky and clouds in every shot. (It was actually shot outside Calgary, Canada. But the fields and the sky were real.)

Unfortunately for the critics who want to call it hokey, it's beautiful. Esteemed cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (who died shortly after this film, which is dedicated to him) shot painterly uncluttered foregrounds against vast vistas to create a mood, that together with the simple dialogue and characterizations, create a meaning.  Scenes like this have been attempted many times since, never as successfully.

Together they tell the story of Clark Kent's roots, which become Superman's. They are the rural equivalent of the original roots of Superman in the Jerry Siegel's 1930s vision.

The time sequence as given by the film is somewhat complicated.  The brief introduction notes 1938 as the birth of the Daily Planet, but within the film 1948 is named as the year Krypton blows up.  This makes Superman a Baby Boomer, in more ways than one.

 Later, Jor-El says it happened thousands of years before, sort of confusing matters.  But if it was 1948 and the super baby's journey takes three years, then he's a teenager in the 60s (though the Kansas vehicles suggest the 40s and 50s, and the diesel train that teenage Clark outruns would be no earlier than the 50s or 60s.  On that train, by the way, is Noel Neil, the original Lois Lane from the movie serials and the 50s TV show.  She's playing Lois Lane's mother, a joke that mostly got cut in the 1978 version but is restored in the 2000 edit. Also in the restored scene is Lois' father, played by Kirk Alyn, the very first live action Superman.)

Clark is 18 when he leaves the farm to do his Krypton father's bidding.  There's a transitional scene in the Arctic where Clark throws a crystal shaft that builds his Fortress of Solitude, and he stays to complete his Kryptonian education.  The Brando voiceovers suggest this takes several years.  So if he emerges in 1978, he's 30 when he begins his public ministry--the same age as Christ was.

At the end of the Fortress of Solitude sequence, we see simultaneously for the first time Christopher Reeve and the adult Superman in his classic blue and red costume.  And for the first time, very briefly, we see him fly.  Bingo.

 Then the movie moves to Metropolis. The tempo and mood change immediately.  It's the cluttered, fast, jangling, cynical city of 1978--the one just outside the movie theater where I was watching this film.  (In a few years, I would actually be working in the very building that portrayed the Daily Planet: the New York Daily News building, as a freelancer on assignment.)

Here's where the previous two sections pay off, especially the mood and content of the Kansas scenes.  We see Clark as an awkward, even bumbling adult.  We know from previous scenes, that he's really not--this is an act.  But his deadpan physical comedy (Reeve said he'd looked to Cary Grant's performances in similar roles) works seamlessly with the mildly satirical comic mood that embraces the Daily Planet characters.

Yet Clark's essential character--sincere, principled and naturally good without irony or apology--is also revealed.  Though the fields around the Kent farm are timeless, they echo an America identified with the Depression era.  He is the idealistic rural heartland 1930s America, here to redeem the overmechanized metropolitan 1970s.

 Superman begins his ministry with a series of miracles.  The crucial one is the first, when Lois Lane is dangling from a helicopter which is itself dangling from the top of the Daily Planet building.  A crowd quickly gathers--noisy, excited, fearful but full of the adrenalin of disaster.  Recall that in the late 1970s and well into the 80s, Manhattan seemed like a more dangerous place than before or since.  There was more street crime, and it was also choked with fumes and dirt. There seemed to be a disaster a minute, of one kind or another.

Clark Kent does his first classic transformation, this time merely spinning in the kind of revolving door that he previously had gotten himself jammed up in, playing the hapless Clark. As Superman he says "Excuse me" to a young black hipster complimenting him on his outfit.  And then zooms straight up.

In a scene that is always exhilarating, he catches the falling Lois, who responds with her famous line: "You've got me?  Who's got you?"  Then he catches the falling helicopter.

The crowd cheers but it is more than amazement.  On their faces is evidence of a very un-70s Manhattan emotion: joy.

The series of other miracles that follows are the small ones, reminiscent of the early comic books and TV show: thwarting a lone criminal and then a gang, saving Air Force One, before rescuing a cat from a tree for a little girl.  This was Superman's original mission--helping others in time of urgent need.

Meanwhile at the Daily Planet and in Lex Luthor's lair, the movie never forgets that it comes from a comic strip. It never gets as silly as the Batman TV show of the 60s, with its earnest heroes and outlandish action. But it is playful in these areas.

Gene Hackman's theatrical Luthor is a comic arch villain, adding to the high spirits and anticipation of more Super exploits.  But behind Luthor's genial psychotic demeanor is an arrogance and tricky cynicism that will test the efficacy of Superman's virtue.

And the love story necessary to the film's climax begins. There's romantic banter when Lois interviews Superman on the impossible rooftop terrace of her apartment, but when she flies with him, the audience experiences that wonder and freedom of flight.  It's a little cheesy but it works.  As well as being a pretty good first date.

The main action of the movie is an ingenious sequence that doesn't bear close analysis.  Donner's directorial motto was "verisimilitude," which avoids disbelief in the rush of events, but can't completely escape the logical lapses.  It also takes the movie into the bigger is better ethos of superhero movies ever since.

There is one small vindication for the Superman ethic.  Luthor traps him with a necklace of Kryptonite (which looks disconcertingly like the crystal sliver that makes the Fortress of Solitude.)  He escapes it with the help of the voluptuous Miss Tessmacher (played by Valerie Perrine) whose function to Luther is obscure.  She extracts a promise in return, which she knows Superman will honor because he--unlike the perfidious Luthor--always tells the truth.

Superman (now known as Superman I or more often Superman: The Movie) was followed by three more films with Christopher Reeve. After a successfully charming TV series (Lois and Clark) in the 90s, a Smallville prequel TV series, and an attempt to pick up the feature film story with new actors (Superman Returns), a more recent movie went back to reimagine the origins and take it from there in a series of superhero extravaganzas.  But most still see Christopher Reeve as the definitive Superman, and his first Superman film as the acknowledged classic.

Postscript: I posted this before I learned that Margot Kidder had just died.  There were a few major parts in this film for which the actor was the filmmakers' second or third choice, but there was active competition for the role of Lois Lane, and Margot Kidder won it.  

Kidder's Lois didn't disdain or demean Clark; she barely saw him, but when she did she prodded him like a sister.  She won the role doing the balcony scene with Superman ( interviewing him on the terrace outside her apartment.)  Her lovestruck performance and interaction with Chris Reeve was the essential piece. That scene as a screen test, incidentally, is also what finally won Christopher Reeve the role of Superman.

Kidder played the part of Lois in the subsequent Reeve Superman movies, and remained close to Reeve the rest of his life.  Kidder died at her home in Montana at the age of 69.